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2022 is the year of “historical memory” and political use of history in Belarus

Last update: 13 February 2023
2022 is the year of “historical memory” and political use of history in Belarus
After mass protests against authoritarianism and falsification of election results in 2020, significant changes have taken place in Belarus regarding culture of remembrance, historical education and the way history, historical events, figures and processes are presented in the public space.

At the beginning of 2022, Aliaksandr Lukashenka issued a decree declaring the “year of historical memory” in the country. Later, a special Republican Council on Historical Policy was created, as the official news reported, “to implement a unified state policy in the field of historical memory.”

In 2022, it was possible to see the development of negative trends, primarily related to the policy of the regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka: destruction of independent publishing projects, within the framework of which there appeared literature on history, as well as destruction of publishing opportunities for individual publications; persistence of repression against representatives of the historical community and museum workers and guides; destruction of burial places of participants of non-communist resistance to Nazism during the Second World War and of the Home Army; militarization of educational programs; manipulative use of the terms “Nazism” and “fascism”.

The situation surrounding history in Belarus in 2022 not only became a continuation of the policy that had begun long before this period, but it also acquired new features (including due to the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine in February 2022).

The politics of memory in Belarus before the mass protests of 2020

The politics of memory of the authoritarian regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka since the mid-1990s has always been focused on the use and manipulation of historical references, emphasizing important topics and censoring politically dangerous historical topics and figures. State media, the system of school historical education (as well as control over university history courses), special ideological departments in the sphere of public administration, which deal, among other things, with the problems of establishing memorial signs and monuments, became an important tool for such use of history. Museum expositions were also controlled.

Special attention in the official policy of memory has always been paid to at least two important topics: the modern history of Belarus in the late 1980s – early 21st century and the history of the Second World War 1939-1945.

Starting from the end of the 1990s, in the course of actively rewriting the contents of school textbooks, detailed information about various aspects of the history of demise of the USSR, political struggle of the late 1980s – mid-1990s practically disappeared from them (information about the political opposition, including BPF, its leaders, etc.). The history of the protest movement of the 1990s and 2000s is also absent, as is information about the protests of 2020 in recent textbook editions.

The narrative about the modern history of Belarus in official publications and museum exhibits (for example, in the Museum of Modern Belarusian Statehood in Minsk, which was established in 2011) is quite simple: due to the weakness and mistakes of the state administration, the USSR collapsed, which brought the entire society exclusively to the crisis. It had a particularly heavy impact on the economy. However, all crisis phenomena were completely overcome after 1994, when Aliaksandr Lukashenka came to power, and then our history includes only achievements.

History of the Second World War 1939-1945 was presented after 1994 as part of the usual Soviet scheme, centered on the ideology of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, a tragedy that ended with Victory. This concept was partially “nationalized” after the collapse of the USSR – the emphasis shifted from the war of the Soviet people as a whole to the Belarusians, and the very use of the history of the war served as the basis for the official project of collective identity inside the already independent Belarus.

A number of topics were ignored, addressed fragmentarily or censored – for example, the history of the Holocaust of Belarusian Jews, the mass genocide of the Roma, the history of the Ostbar workers, the facts of the defeats and mistakes of the Soviet troops, the history of the non-communist resistance to Nazism (the Home Army, etc.), the Jewish partisan movement, the shadow history of the Soviet partisan movement, the history of the national movement during the war (which was associated exclusively with collaboration), the repressive policy of the Soviet political regime before, during and after the end of the Second World War, the analysis of the difference in the history of the regions of Belarus (in particular, Western and Eastern Belarus), etc.

The official politics of memory also always censored the topics of state violence and Stalinist crimes in the 20th century, the history of the national movement, the memory of the Charnobyl disaster in 1986, all episodes of the common history of Belarus and Russia were rarely considered from the point of view of a critical approach.

After the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, a number of changes took place in the memory policy of the Lukashenka regime. One of them was attempts to use the resource of history that had always been used by the political opposition. We are talking about the history of the national movement and the proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918.

The authorities allowed civil society activists to hold jubilee events in honor of the centenary of the formation of the BPR in 2018. Also, in 2018, they tried to depoliticize the memory of Stalin’s repressions by erecting a monument at the place of mass executions of the late 1930s in Kurapaty near Minsk. This period of “liberalization” and another manipulation of history ended in 2020, when the authorities managed to stop mass protests and eliminate street activism.

From 2020 to 2022: new forms of political use of history in Belarus

Today in the country, we can see various aspects of how the regime manipulates history for its use in the domestic and foreign policy:

– It legitimizes the mass violence of 2020 and repressive policies after the suppression of protests.

Back in the mid-1990s, during the fight against the political opposition, propagandists of the Lukashenka regime used references to the history of the Second World War, associating in their media products collaboration with the Nazis in that period and representatives of the Belarusian People’s Front in the mid-1990s. This trick was used again almost immediately during the 2020 protest movement, starting in August.

Today, this is the most popular reference of the propagandists of the authoritarian regime: the participants of the mass protests of 2020 are declared ideological heirs of the Nazis and Nazi collaborators of the Second World War period. At the same time, the rhetoric of the mid-1990s is also used stating that political symbols of resistance (in particular, the white-red-white flag) are linked to the legacy of collaboration with the Nazis of that period.

Propagandists also began to use references to the concept of genocide politically. The events of the Second World War are declared a “genocide of the Belarusian people”, and the political protests of 2020 are presented as the idea of continuing this genocide, which is blamed on the “collective West” (including Poland, Lithuania, Germany and other countries).

The historical community and independent historians criticize this use of the concept of genocide both by pointing out that equaling Nazi policy towards Jews and towards Belarusians is problematic, and by questioning the definition of genocide and its chronological framework. However, these critical remarks were not taken into account, all wordings were preserved, and the text of the Law “On the Genocide of the Belarusian People” itself was adopted and signed in December 2021 – January 2022.

The book “Genocide of the Belarusian People”, published in the summer of 2020 under the editorship of the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Belarus Shved, carries out all the ideas presented above about the alleged connection between the genocidal policy of the Nazis during the Second World War and the political protests of 2020. The promotion of the concept and ideas from this book became part of the “Year of Historical Remembrance” events. Their goal was to organize numerous expositions or their sections on the territory of the country, which would tell about the official version of the “genocide of the Belarusian people” based on new figures and facts, reported mainly by the representatives of the prosecutor’s office.

Amendments to the laws “On countering extremism” and “On preventing the rehabilitation of Nazism” adopted earlier, in 2021, can also be used as tools for persecution for a political position.

Propagandists and ideologues of the regime are also trying to find a new symbolic resource to integrate the post-protest society. References to the history of 1939 became such a resource. In 2021 and 2022, the National Unity Day was celebrated on September 17 in memory of the entry of Soviet troops into the territory of Western Belarus after the beginning of World War II and the implementation of the secret protocols of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. This led to what official historiography calls the reunification of Western and Eastern Belarus into one state. The speeches of the officials said that the West is trying to divide us, but we will now fight it. The introduction of a new holiday in the calendar overshadowed all other events of that period: Stalin’s repressions and deportations that took place after the entry of Soviet troops into Western Belarus; illegal division of Poland; the fate of Belarusians who survived the change of three political regimes on the territory of Western Belarus within the shortest possible time, etc.

– The regime uses history in its foreign policy and as a tool to legitimize the war in Ukraine.

After 2020, neighboring countries (Poland and Lithuania), as well as EU countries in general, took an active and critical position in relation to the regime in Belarus. The use of the “genocide of the Belarusian people” concept by the authoritarian regime in Belarus has also become part of the rhetoric in attempts to respond to this critical position.

Poland and Lithuania, as well as the “collective West” (an expression that appeared in Russian propaganda and was copied by Belarusian propagandists), were accused of not recognizing the “genocide of the Belarusian people” and not compensating for its consequences, as well as not issuing criminals who participated in the genocide. In fact, the concept of “genocide of the Belarusian people” has become part of the anti-Western rhetoric in Belarus.

Official structures in the country (including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) periodically also accuse Poland and Lithuania of conspiratorial actions to undermine the sovereignty of Belarus, mentioning the “Pole card” and other initiatives. According to Aliaksandr Lukashenka, the period of the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (mid-16th – late 18th century) is “Polish occupation and ethnocide of Belarusians”.

The destruction of the burials of the members of the non-communist resistance to Nazism in Western Belarus – the Home Army – became part of the official policy of memory. Representatives of security forces and state propagandists accuse the Home Army of participating in the “genocide of the Belarusian people” on the side of the Nazis. Not only burials are being destroyed – memorial signs and monuments dedicated to representatives of the Home Army are disappearing from public space.

After the Russian attack on Ukraine in February 2022, the propaganda of the Lukashenka regime synchronized with the propaganda of the Putin regime, accusing the Ukrainian people and their political leaders of Nazism and fascism, substituting these historical concepts.

– The regime attempts to create a domestic monopoly on the interpretation of history in public space, which prompts the problem of historical knowledge criteria.

Already in 2019, the first signs appeared that the control over history and its public images is becoming part of the actions of power structures representatives. In the period 2020-2022, the memory policy of the authoritarian regime, the speeches of security forces and Aliaksandr Lukashenka himself showed that the history and culture of remembrance had been declared a “national security zone”. The creation of the Republican Council on Historical Policy should also help to “protect” those interpretations of history imposed by state propaganda from criticism.

During 2022, the infrastructure that provided an opportunity for public presentation of historical research and publications of independent historians and translated texts was almost completely destroyed inside Belarus.

This infrastructure had been formed for a long time. In the period from the early 1990s to 2020, there appeared lacunae and niches for the phenomenon of independent historiography. The concept of “independent historiography” in the Belarusian context requires an explanation. We are talking about research and publications that present ideas that are alternative to the official politics of memory. The loosening of censorship in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the emergence of publications on problematic topics of history, during the 1990s and 2000s there appeared some publishing projects (that included periodicals or specialized in publishing historical books).

An alternative academic infrastructure was also emerging, the task of which was the publicity and support of important independent publications and topics of historical research (the International Congress of Belarusian Researchers was established in Kaunas, then its organizers developed a system of awards for the best publications in the field of history and other humanitarian disciplines). In 2018, a magazine “Our History” was launched, the editors of which tried to create a popular product, relying on the professional preparation of texts by historians. Along with obvious ideologues and propagandists, in state universities and academic institutions there worked historians who were guided by professional standards.

Currently, more than 70 representatives of the historical community (teachers, researchers, museum workers, etc.) have suffered from repression in the country. The process of dismissal and actual blacklisting affected all the significant historical institutions, including the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Belarus. Many historians were forced to leave for Poland, Lithuania, and Germany. Most of the independent publishing projects in Belarus have been closed; their founders have also been forced to emigrate and are now trying to continue their activities outside the country.

In October 2022, Sviatlana Kazlova’s monograph “Agrarian Policy of the Nazis in Western Belarus”, published by the independent publishing house “Yanushkevich” based on a dissertation officially defended in Belarus in 2006, was recognized as “extremist”. It was a unique case in a certain sense.

This event highlights the problem associated with the maximum instrumentalization of history: the state officially recognizes only such an interpretation of history that currently corresponds to the official policy of memory, while the criteria of academic history and research evaluation do not work. Unfortunately, the problem is aggravated by the fact that some historians in Belarus actively perform propaganda functions, making a career and legitimizing blunt propaganda theses with their speeches.

– Educational programs are getting censored and militarized.

In Belarus, the system of school history education is strictly centralized, and the content of this education is fully controlled. Uniform textbooks and teaching materials should facilitate this control. The situation in universities and institutions of higher education was different – despite the uniform curricula, teachers could use different teaching aids and references to literature. In the late spring – early summer of 2022, authorities planned to review educational literature for higher education institutions as to the “distortion of historical memory and truth.”

Schoolchildren are going to be actively involved in the activities of “military-patriotic camps” organized by the security forces. In November 2022, it was reported that one of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions – BSU Lyceum – jointly with the State Security Committee, was organizing a competition to present the activities of Feliks Dziarzhynski, who was one of the founders of the Soviet system of state terror in the 1920s. In addition, an optional course on the study of the “genocide of the Belarusian people” is being introduced in schools.

– The regime destroys cultural diversity and the idea of inclusiveness and multi-perspective history.

Using references to history and the threat of “glorification of Nazi criminals”, as early as 2021, the security forces in Belarus began to destroy all organizations that were not official and represented the interests of Belarusian Poles. Some of the activists were arrested (Hrodna journalist Andrei Pachobut is among the almost 1,500 political prisoners). It involved not only organizations of a political nature, but also educational institutions and schools. One of the schools with the Lithuanian language of instruction was closed, in the other, as well as in the two Polish schools, according to the changes in the Law on Education, the language of instruction became a state language (Russian or Belarusian). Polish and Lithuanian were reduced to subject hours, one hour of language and one hour of literature per week.

Since the beginning of the 1990s in the public discourse, the authorities had been actively promoting the image of Belarus as a tolerant, multicultural country with peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups and the guarantee of rights for representatives of these ethnic groups. However, political practice indicates the opposite and offers a specific version of acceptable models of citizenship in the country: you will be able to exercise your rights only in case of absolute loyalty to the political regime. The legislative decision adopted in 2022 to take away Belarusian citizenship of those guilty of “extremist activities” (the list of crimes is extensive) only emphasizes the basic idea of total control over citizens.

Attempts to turn the history of Belarus into a linear, uncomplicated political tool for ensuring citizen loyalty and integration within the framework of a controlled authoritarian citizenship destroys the most important value of history – its plurality, inclusiveness and multiperspectivity. What they did with the history of the 1990s in the official politics of memory, simplifying it to a mythological scheme, they want to do with the history of the most traumatic periods of the 20th century.

Against the background of the continuation of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the presence of Russian troops on the territory of Belarus and “integration programs” bring up the question of the independence of Lukashenka’s regime’s policy within the country. In this context, the destruction of any alternative platforms and opportunities for historical research and publications, the persecution of national symbols appear to be a tool for the destruction of Belarus’ independence and collective identity. The official politics of memory, which chooses strategies to destroy any traces of alternative images of history in the public space, can lead to its own complete disappearance.

The material was prepared for PEN Belarus by Aliaksei Bratachkin, a researcher at the Department of Public History of Hagen Correspondence University (Germany), base on the results of the Monitoring Violation of Cultural and Human Rights of Cultures Figures for the years 2021–2022.